I’ve often heard Stanford’s most prominent landmark called our enduring monument to a failed president. No matter what context you ascribe, that seems historically accurate. Hoover Tower stands 285 feet tall, looms over campus and is named after a bungler of the highest order.
To put it diplomatically, Herbert Hoover was out of his depth in a time of crisis. To put it frankly, he really sucked at the job. He came into office envisioning “the day when poverty will be banished from this nation” and left four years later with the unemployment rate above 20 percent.
He graced the United States with its greatest example of protectionist failure, and also its best-named piece of legislation ever, in the Smoot-Hawley tariff, which eviscerated global trade.
There’s a reason that a “Hoover Flag” referred to an empty pocket turned inside out. In fact, things were so bad that a young, equivocating governor of New York was able to win the 1932 election in a massive landslide and thereby establish a new political order.
So maybe it’s a strained intellectual maneuver to try and rescue Hoover’s reputation from his most public and enduring failure. Nonetheless, it’s worth a shot. Though Hoover will forever be remembered by the legacy of his presidency, I believe he deserves much more.
Both before and after his tenure in the Oval Office, Hoover demonstrated talents and qualities that we should celebrate. To paraphrase Kevin Carey, he emphatically deserved to be here.
A member of our first freshman class, Hoover was a man of science and industry. From humble beginnings as the orphaned son of an Iowa blacksmith, he worked his way up into unparalleled success as a mining tycoon.
With his equally impressive wife Lou, he learned Chinese and Latin and helped translate “De re metallica” into English for the first time. Even more significantly, the food relief program he set up in Europe after World War I fed millions of people, literally saving some from starvation.
Moving into government, he helped establish the Department of Commerce as a vibrant and essential cabinet bureau. And, of course, he established the Hoover Institution, housed within the aforementioned tower, and an essential collection of documents from both World Wars.
In so many ways, his biography jumps out as a quintessentially Stanford story. But then he ran for President, got himself elected and just about ruined that good reputation.
While it’s important not to assign Hoover blame for the structural causes of the Great Depression, it’s equally crucial to admit that his macroeconomic response (or lack thereof) was utterly inadequate. Though it perplexes me still how Calvin Coolidge seems to get off scot free for the economic collapse that ensued directly after his time in the White House, Hoover was very much a part of the same tradition.
Though he dissented from the even more passive response strategy of Andrew Mellon, it must always be remembered that Hoover failed to provide the American people with recovery, relief and reform, to disastrous effects.
Upon leaving the Presidency, Hoover returned to his more successful career of helping others. He again worked in food relief following World War II and was especially influential as head of the Hoover Commission, appointed by Harry Truman, to reorganize the executive branch.
Among its various recommendations were several that lay the foundations of the modern welfare state, including what later became the Department of Health and Human Services. Ironically, that department for several decades housed the Social Security Administration, legislation that, more than any other, stood as a repudiation of President Hoover’s time in Washington.
Life outside of politics was good for Hoover, and for the countless lives improved through his tireless labor.
So when I bike by Hoover Tower every morning, I don’t actually look up and see a monument to failure.
Hubris perhaps, and a form of hide-bound rigidity. A belief in the old ways and a stunning failure of imagination.
But vitally, this is twinned with a willingness to serve the greater cause of mankind, the cause that never ends. Ultimately, I see a good man, and occasionally a great one, the most fitting tribute of all.